Wednesday, November 8, 2017

What we remember

Remembrance Day fast approaches, and with it my conflicted feelings about it. Different years I have chosen to honour or not honour it, this year I choose not to. I was asked to go to the local Remembrance Day service and also to usher for the Soldiers of Song performance (in honour of Remembrance Day). I will not go to the service but I will usher for the performance, mostly out of wanting to remain in good standing as an usher.

I get that Remembrance Day is supposed to honour the fallen soldiers of all our wars, from World War I on. I get that the country wants to remember them as heroes and to portray modern day soldiers as heroes too. I won't argue the point, always good to honour people who represent ideal virtues (courage, loyalty, sense of duty, etc.) However, honouring soldiers is so intertwined with honouring the fighting of wars that I just can't do it.

The men who enlisted for the armies of World War I were sold a bill of goods. That war was all about international politics, nothing more. Not freedom or democracy or protecting the defenceless, just politics. Many soldiers ended up living under atrocious circumstances and dying ignominiously. Those that could not stomach it were condemned as deserters and cowards, the penalty for which was summary execution. The women back home (in European countries at any rate) protested and marched in the streets and the news of that was suppressed so soldiers on the front lines wouldn't know about it. Desertion and cowardice were serious problems. And then of course there was the spanish 'flu.

By the time of World War II, aviation had progressed to the point that bombing entire cities from the air was possible and considered a legitimate form of warfare. Non-combatants were now fair game, in the hopes of convincing their governments to surrender. Atrocity piled on atrocity. Again soldiers were sold a bill of goods, although perhaps not quite as blatantly as for the first world war. There was Hitler after all (one can argue that he was the direct product of World War I but no matter). No one cared about genocide or holocaust until after the fact. The Canadian government had blood on its hands for its policy of refusing safe haven for Jewish refugees, and for its treatment of Japanese Canadian citizens.

It got worse. The Korean War resulted in the partitioning of Korea. The war in Vietnam was just a horror show, millions killed and the landscape destroyed. Each time soldiers enlisted for patriotic reasons fabricated by their governments. Canada did not join the war in Iraq, but in a pact with the devil the Canadian government agreed to pick up the slack in Afghanistan so American soldiers there could be reposted to Iraq. Rape and pillage have always been considered a legitimate compensation for victorious soldiers, only very recently have we thought twice about that. And good luck unravelling the complexities (and atrocities) of Syria, or Palestine, or the various wars in Africa.

Ostensibly wars are fought to protect freedom and democracy and make the world safe for peace. It hasn't happened. It is ludicrous to say that waging this war will end war for all time, or at the very least prevent the next war, and yet that is the justification. Buffy Sainte-Marie (who was in Wolfville the past few days) got it right in 'The Universal Soldier'.

It is sickening. If there were a day to remember the awfulness of war and to promote peace I think I could buy into it. Or what about honouring the non-combatant war dead (as they do in the Netherlands)? They die and are made homeless in far greater numbers than soldiers. Or how about the families of soldiers who must cope with the behavioural fallout of emotionally damaged veterans? Never mind the victims of rape and pillage.

I recently read the poem 'In Flanders Fields' on Facebook, the anthem for Remembrance Day. Ostensibly the poem honours the war dead, but here is the last stanza:

"Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

In other words, don't let the war stop, or you will be rendering all those soldiers' deaths meaningless. I say, those deaths are already meaningless, that is the real tragedy, and exhorting us to continue the war is just the most awful advice I have ever heard.

Postscript: I wrote this to avoid doing my writing class homework and also because it is a bleak November day threatening snow. In a bleak mood.

3 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

To add to what you said, the soldiers come back with PTSD which sometimes leads to homelessness, sometimes to violence. I think it all leads to increased violence here in our country. Violence begets violence. I am sure there are wars that can't be avoided but most are indeed fought for political and economic purposes when negotiating could accomplish more without a willingness to shed blood-- often innocent blood. To glorify war just seems detrimental to life.

Annie said...

I agree with you Rain, and I don't know how one can honour veterans without glorifying war in the process.

joared said...

This is an excellent commentary — war is bleak at its best!